Applying key questions to what work comes back to campus - an APA example

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By Barbara Roberts
A consistent set of principles, key questions or values goes a long way in clarifying complex decisions. When we get back to primary principles, and away from personal circumstances, we can make better decisions.I like what Fisher and Ury say in "Getting to Yes," at the Harvard Negotiation Project: "Separate the people from the problem. Be soft on the people and hard on the problem.” If we can identify the “problem” or the challenge as the work that must be done on campus, independent of the people initially, we can solve the problem better together and protect the people.

As we consider how to decide what work must be done on campus, and what work can continue to be done remotely, we have two key principles guiding us from the outset. President Stanley has charged us with putting the health and safety of our people first, and continuing to work remotely if at all possible [date].  So there’s the challenge - what work is possible to do remotely, or not, and how do we define and decide that?

I have combined some key questions to help us meet the President’s directive. In our recent webinar, we explored these questions and applied them to an APA position to see if we could determine what work could continue to be done remotely, what the impact and risks would look like. I was asked to share the example in a blog post, so people might apply the questions to the roles and tasks in their own units, or their own roles; to explore with some specificity what work must return to campus, and what work we can continue doing remotely. Below is the example of a student advisor role, where the key questions have been applied and a conclusion reached, based on a clear consistent process, as to whether student advising can be done remotely or not. (The position description is based on my own knowledge of similar roles by way of a composite example, and is not drawn from the classification description for Student Advisor.)

Sample - Administrative staff, APA - Student Advisor provides information on course requirements, substitutions, tuition and financial aid, campus resources, career information, planning, time management and study skills; tracks data on communication, issues addressed, referrals and student demographics.

  1. What is the nature of the work? Key responsibilities?
    • Verbal communication of complex, varied information from multiple sources (generally online); provide solid, reliable information and advice to students; enter data in electronic database to track activity and student information

  2. What outputs or indicators of success must be evident?

    • Student inquiries answered accurately, promptly; caseload managed at appropriate and consistent levels of contact; data management accurate and up-to-date; phone, online/Zoom and email activity evident in records; no complaints from students/parents; satisfaction survey results positive.

  3. Consideration of multiple means to the same end (not a change in the end goal)

    • How else could someone do this job?

    • Online by email, Zoom, or other secure platform; by phone, laptop, tablet; from home, in their car; with a computer on site, used to access Advisor in Teams/Zoom

  4. What is the evidence/reason for doing this job in a particular location?
    • Little to none; there is much evidence in the field and parallel fields that this job can be done from anywhere that is private, quiet, and where confidentiality can be maintained.

  5. What is the effect of remote work on the work/unit, if any?
    • Limited availability for walk-in student needs, reduced collegial  contact/consulting, inability to escort students to Olin or other immediate supports; enhanced physical safety for students and staff

      • Nature of the effect? Positive? Neutral? (What could happen?) Less personal, in-person contact with clients and colleagues; achievable via Teams etc; neutral.  More accessible to students online, off-hours asynchronously; enhanced safety; positive effect
      • Probability of effect? (How likely is it?) Highly likely
      • Severity of effect? (How serious is the risk?) Mild; students readily work online or virtually most of the time
      • Scope of effect? (Who, or how widely, would the impact be?) Limited - impact only on walk-in students, preventable by marketing online model; enhanced safety for both students and staff
  6. If impact of working remotely is neutral or positive, why not? Positive; work remotely

These are questions that I hope may be helpful in identifying what work must be done on campus, so we have a starting place for meaningful conversations about who, then, needs to return and how, to maintain the health and safety of our Spartan community. There may be different questions that work better for a given situation/unit, or additional considerations to be weighed in, but having a consistent set of questions at a high enough level to apply across job and employee types, specific enough to illuminate the rationale, and known to everyone will help us mitigate bias, meet individual needs more equitably, and provide a foundation for mutually fruitful and effective decision-making.  This example will be followed with sample applications to CTU, 1585, faculty, researcher and clinical instructor roles. Questions? Contact blr@msu.edu Happy to discuss anytime! More on this process can be found here: https://worklife.msu.edu/node/1030 and here: WLO decision making protocol 

  1. Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in.